The blogosphere and my inbox, have been buzzing with response to former Portfolio editor Joanne Lipman’s rather bizarre piece on modern womanhood in The New York Times, “The Mismeasure of Woman,” which has spent several days floating around on the paper’s most e-mailed list. I’m going to have to echo Jezebel’s Anna N. by saying that I was actually with Lipman throughout much of her critique — until the end when she started listing a rather motley group of prescriptions for the Woman Problem.
Lipman, who climbed the ranks at The Wall Street Journal before becoming the founding editor the now-defunct Portfolio, begins her argument with the assertion that many women of her generation dismissed feminism as a big, old, shrill stereotype, and simply plowed forward in the workplace as individuals. And to a certain extent, they succeeded: Women have made strides on paper in terms of standing in major organizations and numbers in prestigious professions. But, she wrote, what’s keeping us from taking those final steps towards genuine equality is a fundamental lack of respect, a non-quantifiable sense that we still face obstacles like sexual harassment, higher expectations and the impediments of sexist critique.
Here’s where I got excited.
Hmm, I thought, Lipman seems to be putting the pieces together, realizing that the individual fights for workplace acceptance need to be integrated with a structural critique of women’s place in society and a look at some of the larger problems women face from field to field, milieu to milieu. (I’m not sure whether Lipman is concerned with women beyond the high-powered elite, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt). I wonder if there’s a comprehensive philosophical and political movement that encompasses all those things … maybe it’s the same movement that was just dismissed as irrelevant.
Alas, at that very moment of discovery, Lipman finks out and lists a rather incoherent set of goals for women, including the age-old exhortations to demand more money, have a sense of humor and be unafraid of femininity. It looks like Lipman’s essay is a very high-profile example of “I’m not a feminist, but” syndrome.
The Jewish feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founder of Ms. Magazine made the same point when she slammed Lipman’s piece in the paper’s letters section yesterday:
And after expressing no respect for her foremothers’ role in the fight for gender justice, she has the nerve to suggest that women demand respect, as if it was something we old strident feminists forgot to include in our agenda. When I tally up her demands, it sounds to me as if Ms. Lipman wants her cohort to throw off their “post-feminist” blinders and form a movement. Welcome to the struggle.
Lipman, and other powerful women’s use of the “I’m not a feminist but” label is understandable, if irritating. After all, strong women at the top of their careers get pilloried even without the feminist identification. But as Hillary Clinton showed towards the end of her campaign, embracing sisterhood doesn’t always hurt your image. And it might even make Lipman feel less alone, and offer her some meatier solutions to a pervasive social problem than “be yourself.” If it looks like feminism, and feels like feminism, you might as well call it feminism.